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Claiming ‘Parallel State’ Cabal, Romania’s Leaders Target Anti-Corruption Prosecutor

Posted June 17, 2018 2:26 p.m. EDT

BUCHAREST, Romania — The powerful leader of Romania’s governing party — convicted of voter fraud, suspected of stealing millions of dollars of European Union funds, and soon to face a verdict in a case involving abuse of power — had a message for the more than 100,000 citizens who gathered in one of the capital’s main squares recently: He is the victim.

The pro-government demonstrators in Bucharest on June 9 were protesting what they call a “parallel state” in Romania that they say perverts the rule of law with the aid of the president and the chief anti-corruption prosecutor.

If the anti-corruption forces could come for him, Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the governing Social Democratic Party, warned ominously, they could come for anyone.

“You must not be under the illusion that only high-ranking officials or public servants will be the victims of denunciations and fake evidence,” he told supporters. “Absolutely everyone today in Romania can be targeted by a denunciation which could lead to an arrest or conviction.”

It was a remarkable moment for this country of more than 20 million, which has long ranked as one of the most corrupt in Europe but has been aggressively battling high-level graft for more than a decade.

That fight is now in serious jeopardy, however, after a court ordered the dismissal of the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor and effectively removed safeguards that had been put in place to ensure that prosecutors and judges were protected from political pressure and retribution.

The court ruling rests on a strict reading of the constitution, and critics say the only way to preserve prosecutorial independence now may be to hold a referendum to change the constitution itself.

Dragnea’s party, emboldened by the failure of European Union officials to curb threats to the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, has cast his battle as one against enemies both foreign and domestic.

“After the revolution, NATO and the EU said they would teach us democracy,” Dragnea said in a nationally televised interview this month, referring to the 1989 uprising. “They should all assume this responsibility, because they’ve encouraged and also financed this parallel state, this odious system.”

It is a theme that has echoed across the region, from Budapest to Warsaw, from Bratislava to Prague. Even in Romania, where support for membership in the European Union runs deep, the governing party is using a familiar recipe to fire up supporters: promoting conspiracy theories, attacking international financier and philanthropist George Soros for a litany of suspected sins, and painting critics of the governing party as puppets of a nefarious cabal.

The language used at the rally was strikingly similar to that President Donald Trump has used to attack investigations into his campaign. “We salute President Trump’s fight against the American deep state,” Liviu Plesoianu, a Social Democrat lawmaker, said in English, so that his words were not lost on the international media. “We know what forces are thrown against him.”

Dragnea and his allies have long called for the chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, to be fired. In February, the justice minister, Tudorel Toader, recommended her dismissal in a report, accusing her of a variety of misdeeds, including acting beyond the duties of her office.

President Klaus Iohannis, a former leader of the opposition National Liberal Party, refused to follow that advice, so the case went to the Constitutional Court. It ruled May 30 that Iohannis could not overrule the justice minister’s recommendation. If he refuses to act, he will most likely be impeached.

Iohannis, in a statement released Tuesday, gave no indication of how he might respond, but he made it clear that he viewed the actions of the governing party as a threat to the country.

“We cannot allow Romania to become a state that moves away from democratic values. We cannot accept magistrates being threatened and intimidated,” he said. “There is no parallel state in Romania.”

The court decision did not just recommend the firing of Kovesi. It ruled that prosecutors fall under the authority of the Justice Ministry, which is controlled by political appointees. Critics fear that prosecutors who displease the governing party will be dismissed, and that those who remain will be intimidated from going after high-ranking officials.

Laura Stefan, a former director in the ministry and an anti-corruption expert, said the government had learned from past mistakes. When Dragnea’s party proposed emergency legislation aimed at limiting corruption prosecutions some 16 months ago, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets, the largest demonstrations in Romania since the 1989 revolution.

Now, she said, they are following the examples of Poland and Hungary — using legal means to undermine the rule of law itself.

“I am very skeptical that there will now be anything other than a politically controlled justice system,” she said.

Part of the problem, according to legal experts, rests in the country’s constitution, which was written in 1991, when memories were still fresh of a communist regime that used the secret police and prosecutions to target political enemies. The power of prosecutors was deliberately curbed.

“Romania has always been on the outskirts of empires,” Stefan said. “And on the outskirts, you always have lawlessness and villains.” In the 1990s, many villains thrived. Corruption became so endemic that nearly every daily transaction — from driving a car to going to the doctor — was affected. Like death and taxes, bribery was a fact of life.

But as Romania made a push for membership in NATO and the European Union in the early 2000s, tackling corruption became a top priority.

The country ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in 2004, and the next year it established the National Anticorruption Directorate, or DNA, giving prosecutors the independence to target high-level corruption. Since then, thousands of elected officials, high-ranking civil servants and business leaders have been convicted of crimes.

Each year since Kovesi became chief prosecutor of the DNA in 2013, about 1,200 people have been indicted on corruption charges, and 1,000 convicted. Among those charged have been 14 government ministers, 39 deputy ministers, 14 senators and one member of the European Parliament. The office has secured 27 convictions in those cases, with most of the rest still pending.

Kovesi, who remains in her job while the president weighs her future, would not comment directly on the Constitutional Court ruling. But in an interview at the directorate, in the same building that served as the Romanian army’s command center in World War II, she defended her office.

“Changing mentalities is hard,” she said. “The last five years have meant a lot for Romania.”

Kovesi’s hard charging, take-no-prisoners style has made her many enemies from across the political spectrum. As the heat on Dragnea increased, he pushed back more aggressively.

“Because of our investigations, because of our convictions, during the past year and a half the pressure on our institution has certainly increased,” Kovesi said. “If the independence of the prosecutor disappears — as it appears it now does — the job does not become more difficult,” she said. It becomes, she added, impossible. Dragnea hoped that the June 9 rally would show that he had popular support for his campaign against the “parallel state.” But it was hardly an ordinary rally. Tens of thousands of people were bused in from across the country — many reportedly at the request of their bosses and local party leaders.

It took Alexandra, 20, who would not give her family name, seven hours to get to Bucharest from Ludus. Asked why she had come, she said, “We don’t know why we are here.”

Participants were given signs, flags and stickers. Onstage, there were frequent condemnations of the “deep state.”

But in a country where funds from the European Union are seen as important for economic growth, Dragnea also made a show of entering the rally to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the official anthem of the bloc.

Sen. Alina Gorghiu, a member of the opposition National Liberal Party, said that investors could turn their backs on the country if corruption were allowed to go unchecked.

“I believe the final battle will be won by the judiciary,” she said in an interview in her party’s office in the hulking Palace of Parliament, originally intended as the palace of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

But Cristi Danilet, who has spent two decades in the judiciary and is a judge in the northern city of Cluj, was not so confident.

“It is a very dangerous moment,” he said. “I am terrified about my future as an independent judge in the Romanian judiciary.”